USA: Debate is in our DNA

It’s the Fourth of July, and so, as we stand at our grills and look at rainbow-colored explosions in the sky, let’s also reflect on what makes us the same: our differences.

Don’t worry. This isn’t some after-school special. We’re not going to encourage you to celebrate one another’s partisan beliefs. No, we’re encouraging you to disagree, plain and simple. It’s the American thing to do.

As Joseph J. Ellis wrote in his Pulitzer Prize winning book “Founding Brothers,” America was founded on an argument. From the start, our country was the site of messy struggles between competing ideologies, all aiming to define the concept of freedom.

Those arguments continue today. At times, we’re told that they have never been worse — that our divisions are so severe we can’t accomplish anything anymore. We disagree.

For one, our divisions have always run deep. We have had some terrific and terrible arguments with each other over this country.

Take the classic example of Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, two of Ellis’ “Founding Brothers.” Hamilton wound up in a duel with Burr because he had libeled his political rival. Hamilton died over their disagreement. It’s hard to imagine a similar eruption between U.S. Sens. Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell.

Then there’s Abraham Lincoln, who was called a warmonger, a president not interested in peace — and that was by his fellow citizens in the North. As the Library of Congress notes, Lincoln was so sure he would lose re-election, he drafted a sealed memo to his cabinet months before voting began, pledging to support the rival who defeated him.

Of course, he won. He was inaugurated into a second term, ended the Civil War and was shot dead by a political dissident, John Wilkes Booth, all in the space of six weeks.

When you consider how severe our differences have been, it’s easier to put our current divisions into context. Our disagreements run deep but rarely boil over. There have been no riots in the streets over the health care decision, just back-slapping on one side, soft curses on the other.

And that’s good, because we think there is room for disagreement in our complex society. Our debates — over immigration, marriage rights, stem cells — as maddening as they can be, give our country shape and, more often than not, move us forward.

Today, our country is 236 years old, and we’re still arguing about it. So what do we think freedom means?

We think it means we have the ability to disagree. We think the argument is the answer.

Now discuss.

Editor’s note: This editorial has been corrected from the original version to reflect the country’s age at 236.

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